The Archive Lady: Researching My Outlaw Ancestors

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her advice and her own experience on finding those outlaw ancestors in your family tree!

Barbara in Rhode Island asks: “I was recently told a story from a family member that my great-grandfather was a criminal. This really doesn’t surprise me by some other things he has done in his life. This is the first person in my ancestry that may have broken the law. How do I research my outlaw ancestor?”

Barbara asks a great question and one that I think many genealogists can relate to…I know I can! When we have a family story that tells us one of our ancestors was a criminal, broke the law or was just sued by someone else, we should dive into that research.

Many families have stories about the criminal behavior of one of their family members. It’s natural to not want to talk about or explore these events since they often make us feel embarrassed or even ashamed. But, you don’t have to commit murder or make counterfeit money to be considered a criminal. Something as simple as littering can result in a fine and a person’s name being entered into the criminal record books for all eternity.

Trial Docket for James Burnine, Baltimore City, Maryland, Melissa Barker’s Ancestor
Trial Docket for James Burnine, Baltimore City, Maryland, Melissa Barker’s Ancestor

Even if you don’t know if anyone in your family committed a crime, exploring this path of research may yield important clues to your family history.

While the words “criminal records” implies that someone was convicted of a crime, this is not always true. Your Grandma Daisy may have been arrested during Prohibition on suspicion of making moonshine. Maybe Aunt Sadie picketed during the Suffrage movement and was arrested for disturbing the peace. Your ancestor could have been fingerprinted, mug shots taken, pleaded not guilty (because, of course, Grandma Daisy would never do such a thing) and she was put on trial. Even if the court found her innocent or the charges were dismissed on a technicality, her “criminal records” could still exist.

One of the first places to search for your outlaw ancestor’s records is the court system.

Court Records

There are four main types of court records in the United States: dockets, minutes, orders, and case files.

  • Dockets are the calendars of the court. They show the names of the plaintiff and defendant, the case file number, the date the case was/will be heard, and all the documents related to the case. Normally, dockets are in chronological order by date and you will find some that are indexed for searching.
  • Minutes are kept by the court clerks and list all the actions taken by the court. These include a brief description of the actions the court took and the names of the defendant and plaintiff. Like court records, minutes are in chronological order, but they are rarely indexed.
  • Orders are the judgments made by the courts. They consist of a brief description of the case and explain what the court decided. These records are helpful in many aspects of genealogy research besides investigating a person’s criminal history. Court orders may contain very unique pieces of information like the appointment of guardians, orders granting citizenship, and the re-recording of deeds in cases where land records were destroyed. You won’t find this information in any other court records.
  • Case Files often contain the most helpful genealogical information. Legal cases always have a case number (found on the docket and other records) and this is an important piece of information to have if you can find it, because case files may contain detailed testimony, evidence, depositions, petitions, and correspondence vital to your research.
Case file for William Hughes, Going Armed, 1952, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Case file for William Hughes, Going Armed, 1952, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Another avenue for finding those outlaw records is prison and jail records.

Prison and Jail Records

One important aspect to understand about this type of criminal record is the difference between prisons and jails. People often get the terms mixed up or use them interchangeably. Jails are normally run by local authorities and are for holding people awaiting trial or who are only serving a short sentence, likely due to a misdemeanor conviction. Conversely, states and federal governments normally run prisons which are reserved for those with felony convictions are serving longer sentences.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives offers prisoner lists from their state penitentiary for the years 1831 to 1850 and 1851 to 1870. There is no charge to search the databases, but there is a fee if you want a copy of the records. Each record has the prisoner’s name, age, crime, and county. For records up to 1870, you can request information on the date the prisoner came to the penitentiary, their discharge date, and their state of birth.

Still another avenue could be finding your ancestor’s photo in the mug shot books. These photographic records used in crime investigations were created by a French criminologist named Alphonse Bertillon in the late 1800s.

Mug shots are usually found accompanied by other helpful genealogical information such as physical descriptions, aliases, location information, and details about any convictions. Knowing what crimes your relative was convicted of may give you clues to what other records may be available.

Mug Shot, Wikimedia Commons
Mug Shot, Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite types of records to find information about my outlaw ancestors is the newspapers.


The good old newspaper is a great place to find crime information. Articles about crimes, escaping the law, and arrests made for exciting copy that enthralled readers and sold a lot of papers. Papers would often run daily or weekly lists of people’s names and their offenses as well as stories about fugitives on the loose.

As part of their Chronicling America Project, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress has created the Historic American Newspapers website. Researchers can conduct free searches of over 13 million scanned pages of US newspapers from the years 1789 to 1963 for all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The advanced search function lets you search by state or within a specific paper using keywords and/or phrases.

Stephen Thaddeus Debolt death, Wheeling Intelligencer Newspaper, Melissa Barker Ancestor
Stephen Thaddeus Debolt death, Wheeling Intelligencer Newspaper, Melissa Barker Ancestor

So, if you have outlaw ancestors in your family like Barbara does, seek out these resources in the area where they lived. Don’t be afraid to tell the story that can be found in these records. It’s part of their story and our ancestor’s story should be told.

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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